The Branding Iron, Merced, California

When driving between the Bay Area and Los Angeles I prefer taking either U.S. highway 101 near the coast or U.S. 99 in the San Joaquin Valley over boring I-5. I have fond childhood memories of riding in the car on 99 during trips from San Diego to the Sierras or the Gold Country and beyond, watching the trucks on the concrete highway or the trains running alongside. Although much of old highway 99 (aka Business 99) has gotten run down and seedy there are still many interesting sights and antique stores, safe & clean motels, and good independent restaurants along the route. Highly recommended for your exploring along 99 are the series of books by Living Gold Press called That Ribbon of Highway. For over 15 years one of my favorite eateries along the route has been the Branding Iron, an absolute must-visit after dark (as you will see later in this post).


Original Pine Cone Restaurant, Merced, late 1940s

Original Pine Cone Restaurant, Merced, late 1940s


image by

image by


In the 1940s Ray Douglas opened the Pine Cone restaurant in Merced, along what was then U.S. Highway 99 next to the train station. In 1952 he added the Branding Iron steakhouse on the site, which is where the Branding Iron still stands today. He eventually expanded into a chain of Pine Cone / Branding Iron restaurants and inns throughout Northern California. Locations included San Jose at Valley Fair Shopping Center, San Leandro at Bay Fair Shopping Center, Santa Clara at 5155 Stevens Creek Rd, Sacramento on Marconi near Fulton, Fresno at the Tradewinds Motor Hotel, Modesto at 1310 McHenry, and three locations in Merced. All are long closed or converted to other restaurants except the Branding Iron in Merced. On the advertising images for the Branding Iron a steak is being branded with the initials ‘RD’. I wonder if your steak used to come branded like that?



Branding Iron Restaurant - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Branding Iron Restaurant – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


In 1987 the Branding Iron was damaged by fire and closed. Greg Parle purchased the restaurant and restored it, re-opening it in 1988. Greg, his wife Kara, and their son Justin own and run the restaurant today. On my recent visit Greg was at the exit personally thanking his customers for coming (you don’t see that at chain restaurants!).


front dining room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

front dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


front dining room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

front dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


Upon entering the lobby of the Branding Iron on your left is the cocktail lounge with red tufted vinyl bar stools but too many TVs for my liking (it seems like every time I return there is one more TV in the bar). But that’s OK because the restaurant, on your right after entering, is just the way I like it – original 1950s ranch with western touches. Almost everything looks original, from the gorgeous open-beamed wood ceiling to the red tufted banquettes and booths, early American furniture, touches of brick, and in the rear dining room the beautiful copper fireplace (which unfortunately was not used on the chilly night I visited).


rear dining room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


I even like the planter boxes filled with plastic plants along the clerestory windows on the back wall. There are over 200 cattle brands from area ranches displayed on wooden plaques and engraved on the large wooden beams throughout the restaurant. And don’t you love how the recessed lighting enhances the beauty of the tongue and groove paneled wood ceiling? As an added attraction, for me anyway, while dining you can hear passing trains on the nearby tracks (the train station is next door making it a convenient stop if you’re riding Amtrak through the valley).


rear dining room from my table - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

rear dining room’s copper fireplace from my table – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


The menu, of course, specializes in beef, but also includes plenty of chicken, fish, and other dishes. They are famous for their gazpacho, a chilled tomato soup. Dinners may be ordered without soup and salad and come with a vegetable of the day, garlic bread, choice of potato or rice, and a plate-cleansing raspberry freeze, or for a small additional charge you can have a ‘deluxe’ dinner with homemade soup and salad. The last time I went I had the coffee-rubbed ribeye and it was tasty and tender. But I also recall liking the baseball cut top sirloin on a previous visit, a lean steak that can be chewy but is juicy and very flavorful if not cooked too long (so order it rare or med. rare). Their prime rib is also a specialty. It comes in three different sized cuts and is herb crusted and delicious. Other steaks on the menu include the Branding Iron (flatiron), filet mignon, New York strip, and a ribeye without the coffee rub.


A note on steaks that applies to many steakhouses around the country:
I have found that at steakhouses that are less expensive sometimes the steaks are cut thinner than at the more pricey steakhouses that age their beef (this does not mean that the beef is not as good). So it is my recommendation to order your steak less well done than you normally like it. For example, if you prefer medium rare (red, warm center) as I do order it rare. You can always send it back if it needs a few more minutes. Otherwise you may find your steak is closer to medium at the thinner edges. If you like your steak medium (pink center) order it medium rare. I ordered my ribeye at the Branding Iron rare and it was just right – red, but warm throughout.


photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

Be sure and thank the animal who provided your steak! – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


The Branding Iron serves lunch and they have an outdoor patio during the warmer times of the year. The Roundup, three small steaks wrapped with bacon on a skewer with onions and bell pepper, served with fries, is a bargain at lunchtime. Also, the lunchtime menu is loaded with sandwiches, salads, and many of the steaks that are on their dinner menu. But if you don’t go at night you will miss the best animated neon sign for miles around!



The Branding Iron
640 W 16th St, Merced, CA 95340
(209) 722-1822
Open M-F for lunch 11:30am-2:00pm, daily for dinner 5:00pm-9:00pm (until 9:30pm on Friday and Saturday), cocktail lounge open daily 11am-11pm (bar food served M-F 2pm-9pm, Sat-Sun 5pm-9pm)




Casa Ciriaco, Madrid, Spain

It’s been a while since I posted because I was in Spain for a vacation, but I’m back! While I was gone Le Continental turned four!

When I was in Madrid last year I visited three historic restaurants (and posted about them here, here, and here) but I didn’t have time for one of the oldest ones on my list: Casa Ciriaco. So on my recent trip I had a one day layover in Madrid and I made time to have lunch at Casa Ciriaco.


photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


Casa Ciriaco opened as a tavern in 1897 (under a different name). In 1923 it was purchased by Pablo Muñoz Sanz and his brother Ciriaco Muñoz, who started the restaurant named Casa Ciriaco in 1929. The building was infamous for being the site of an anarchist bombing against King Alfonso XIII and his bride on their wedding day. The royal bridal carriage escaped harm but 15 innocent bystanders were killed and many injured.


photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


The restaurant also became famous for its clientele in the 1930s preceding the Civil War, including journalist Julio Camba, artist Ignacio Zuloaga, matadors Domingo Ortega and Juan Belmonte, writer José Ortega y Gasset, and scholar of Basque culture, Julio Caro Baroja. Portraits of some of the famous people who have dined at Casa Ciriaco can be found on the walls of the homey comedor (dining room), which you enter through the swinging doors from the front bar.


photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


The waiters are all veterans; fast and efficient but friendly. They reminded me of the waiters at Tadich Grill or Sam’s Grill in San Francisco.


photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


The menu is classic Madrid cuisine. Specialties include perdiz con judiones (partridge with broad beans, seasonal), cocido (Madrid-style meat and chickpea stew) served on Tuesdays, cochinillo (suckling pig), and pepitoria de gallina (chicken fricassee in a sauce made with almonds and eggs), which dates back over 100-years and is the main dish that I chose for my menu del dia prix fixe lunch (always a good deal in Spain so I try to make it my main meal of the day). For a starter I had pisto manchego, a delicious vegetable stew similar to ratatouille.


pisto - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

pisto – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


pepitoria de gallina - from Wikimedia Commons

pepitoria de gallina – from Wikimedia Commons


For dessert I had arroz con leche (rice pudding).


arroz con leche - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

arroz con leche – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


Reportedly Casa Ciriaco has an outstanding wine cellar with wines dating back to 1917 and cognacs as old as 1892!


Casa Ciriaco
Calle Mayor, 84, 28013 Madrid, Spain
Phone +34 915 48 06 20
Open daily 1:00pm-4:00pm, 8:00pm-11:30pm



Boadas Cocktail Bar, Barcelona, Spain

Back in 2004 I was planning a trip to Spain to attend the incredible music festival called Wild Weekend, held in Benidorm every year until 2004, when I found a great online source of information about Barcelona called City in Space. The web site and companion book highlighted the best remnants of mid-20th century Barcelona, from art deco to tiki, and included restaurants, bars, hotels, theaters, and shops. Unfortunately, many of the places mentioned are now gone or remodeled, however some of the best happily remain, including all three tiki bars, the wonderfully Mod Tortilleria Flash Flash, and the oldest bar in Barcelona, Boadas.


photo by Dean Curtis, 2004

photo by Dean Curtis, 2004


I immediately fell in love with Boadas and it remains one of my favorite classic bars in the world. The history; the classy atmosphere; the well-dressed bartenders who can make any classic cocktail and probably every historic Cuban cocktail with just the right amount of flair. It was like no other bar in the world in 2004. Now there are many newer ones like it but without the history, the patina, and the neighborhood feel.


Boadas' flair - photo by Dean Curtis, 2004

Boadas’ flair – photo by Dean Curtis, 2004


A brief history: in 1933 Cuban-born Miguel Boadas opened his bar simply called Boadas in El Raval just off La Rambla in Barcelona, where it still stands. Although he was born in Cuba, his parents were from Catalonia. Miguel learned to tend bar at the famous El Floridita in Havana, owned by his cousin Narcís Sala Parera. The bar was frequented by many American celebrities escaping Prohibition, most notably Hemingway, and there Miguel learned the Cuban cocktail traditions and recipes, which he brought back to Spain in 1922, taking on bartending jobs in Barcelona until opening Boadas. The bar survived the Spanish Civil War, was enlarged and developed a clientele of famous Catalan writers artists, and celebrities. Today Miguel’s daughter Maria Dolores runs Boadas.


yours truly at Boadas - photo by Jeffrey Gouin, 2004

yours truly at Boadas – photo by Jeffrey Gouin, 2004


Cuba had a rich cocktail history in the first half of the 20th Century. There are dozens of cocktails that were invented at the bars El Floridita and La Bodeguita. The daiquiri and mojito are well-known, but there are many more that are less common. Boadas can make all of them. It is the only surviving bar with connections to the glory days of Cuban mixology. El Floridita bar still exists in Havana, and is definitely worth visiting, but it is a tourist attraction that can only serve you a popular cocktail like a mojito. Cubans don’t drink there anymore. All the original bartenders and the vast number of recipes they had knowledge of are lost to time, except at Boadas. They don’t have menus at Boadas, but on the chalkboard is a different ‘cóctel del dia’ every day, which are always good.

I’m excited to be going back to Barcelona very soon, and to be visiting Boadas for a cóctel del dia! Salut! (the Catalan toast)


Carrer dels Tallers, 1, 08001 Barcelona, Spain
+34 933 18 95 92
Open Mon-Thu 12:00pm-2:00am, Fri-Sat 12:00pm-3:00am, closed Sunday


Anthony’s Fish Grotto, La Mesa, California

I grew up in La Mesa, California, a suburb of San Diego. According to my mom, we went to Anthony’s Fish Grotto next to the Interstate 8 freeway in the 1960s or 70s but I don’t remember. The last time I remember eating there was in the 1990s. I recall liking it but I was mad when they replaced their huge, beautiful sign with fish of different sizes (see postcard below) with a boring blue and white glass sign. After some friends’ recent visit to Anthony’s Fish Grotto in La Mesa, I decided to try it again.


Anthony's founders, 1946 - L to R: Anthony Ghio, Tod Ghio, Catherine "Mama" Ghio, and Roy Weber - photo by Anthony's Fish Grotto

Anthony’s founders, 1946 – L to R: Anthony Ghio, Tod Ghio, Catherine “Mama” Ghio, and Roy Weber – photo by Anthony’s Fish Grotto


In 1946 Catherine “Mama” Ghio and her sons Anthony and Tod with her son-in-law Roy Weber opened a small diner at 965 Harbor Drive in San Diego to serve Mama Ghio’s seafood dishes from her secret fish batter and sauce recipes. Anthony was host, Tod prepared the fish, and Mama and Roy did the cooking. The restaurant was a hit and in 1951 the business expanded, opening a larger restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway and a modern new restaurant in La Jolla.




A wholesale fish market was added in 1954, which still serves as the source of the seafood at Anthony’s, obtained from both local fishing boats and distant seas.


In 1960 Anthony’s hired popular local architect C. J. “Pat” Paderewski to design a modern new restaurant next to a historic pond in La Mesa and to boldly redesign the La Jolla location.


Anthony's La Mesa, 1961 - photo by Modern San Diego

Anthony’s Fish Grotto La Mesa, 1961 – photo by Modern San Diego


The La Mesa location opened in January, 1961, and is still open today.


Antony's Fish Grotto La Mesa postcard

postcard of La Mesa Anthony’s showing original sign at upper left (replaced in the 1990s)


The La Jolla restaurant closed and unfortunately was demolished in 1983.


Anthony's Fish Grotto La Jolla, 1961 - photo by Modern San Diego

Anthony’s Fish Grotto La Jolla, 1961 – photo by Modern San Diego


In 1966 a brand new Anthony’s Fish Grotto was built on the downtown San Diego waterfront.


Anthony's Fish Grotto San Diego, 1966 - photo by Modern San Diego

Anthony’s Fish Grotto San Diego, 1966 – photo by Modern San Diego


Designed by the architectural firm Liebhardt & Weston, it included the main Fish Grotto and a fine dining restaurant, the Star of The Sea Room, where jackets and ties were obligatory.


Star of the Sea Room


The 1970s saw the opening of the Seafood Mart (1973), the Chula Vista Fish Grotto (1974, closed 2011), and Anthony’s Harborside (1976, closed 1991). In 1983 a Fish Grotto opened in Rancho Bernardo (now closed) and in 2006 the Star of The Sea Room was remodeled and rebranded, only to close two years later, becoming a private event space.

Mama Ghio passed away in 1994 at 97 years of age, but Anthony’s is still run by the Ghio family: Anthony’s son Rick, Tod’s son Craig, and Roy’s daughter Beverly.


entrance to La Mesa Fish Grotto - photo by Dean Curtis

entrance to La Mesa Fish Grotto – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


My recent visit was to the La Mesa Fish Grotto, which doesn’t have a bay view like the San Diego one, but it has fanciful grotto decor inside a mid-century modern building. You enter the restaurant through a huge clam shell-shaped portal past a rock grotto with a waterfall.


inside entrance - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

inside entrance – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


Inside the foyer and bar area the walls are covered with rock with nooks and crannies that contain sea flora and fauna. It’s well done so it doesn’t seem tacky.


foyer - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

foyer – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


The main dining rooms are in a modern post & beam building (as seen in the 1961 photo above) with large picture windows overlooking the pond, which was originally used as water storage for a wooden flume that was constructed in 1885-88 to carry water from Lake Cuyamaca. Fountains shoot out of fishes’ mouths into the water and there is a fountain in the middle of the pond.


view from main dining room - photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

view from main dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


The dining rooms have many booths along the picture windows, upholstered in aquatic colors, as well as a few tables and some large booths along an interior rock wall, which features a beautiful mosaic tile mural of Poseidon (aka Neptune) and Amphitrite riding a combination horse and sea creature. There is also a large dog-friendly patio for dining alfresco next to the pond (which you can see in the photo above).


photo by Dean Curtis, 2015

photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


The menu is pretty extensive so, as in all seafood restaurants, order wisely. It is usually a good idea to ask your server what is fresh that day and what preparation they recommend (at Anthony’s you can get your fresh fish prepared in various ways). I tend to order a simple preparation such as grilled or sautéed with a simple pan sauce such as a Picatta sauce because heavy sauces can often overpower fish. On my recent visit to Anthony’s La Mesa I ordered fresh wild king (Chinook) salmon, described as line-caught, which is rated as a good choice by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guidelines. I ordered my salmon grilled with the lemon-dill sauce on the side and with redskin mashed potatoes and homemade cole slaw with creamy pineapple dressing. The fish was fresh and cooked perfectly. Everything was delicious including appetizer we had, crispy Brussels sprouts with bacon.



photo by Dean Curtis, 2015


As I mentioned before, Anthony’s has been in the news this year. The restaurant’s lease with the Port of San Diego expires in 2017, so the Port planned to negotiate the site’s redevelopment with two local restaurant chains, excluding Anthony’s. After this news was released the Ghio family asked the port to consider their proposal for a new plan for the site and the Port agreed to do so. Whatever the Port decides, you still have time to visit Anthony’s Fish Grotto in San Diego or La Mesa. Le Continental recommends the La Mesa location for its atmosphere over the San Diego location, which is in a nice modern building but is furnished with cheap looking furniture that looks like it should be in an ice cream parlor or deli and not a seafood restaurant with a harbor view (wood furniture would have been a better choice, imo).


Anthony’s Fish Grotto
9530 Murray Dr, La Mesa, CA 91942
(619) 463-0368
Open daily 11:00am – 8:30pm (9:00pm on Friday and Saturday)



Memory Lane – Windows on the World, New York City

This blog is primarily intended to celebrate classic and historic restaurants that still exist, but occasionally I will be posting about a restaurant that is gone or recently closed.

My mom was born and raised in New York City (in Queens) so although I grew up in San Diego we made several trips “back East” to visit family. In the early 1970s my relatives who lived on Long Island were very excited about the new modern skyscrapers in “The City”, which were designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki. My uncle worked only a few blocks from the World Trade Center for a shipping company in an older building that overlooked the Hudson River. I remember visiting the Twin Towers in 1976 as it was just after the big Bicentennial celebration in NYC on the 4th of July and there were still many historic boats in the city from the Parade of Ships. We visited the rooftop observation deck (which opened in 1975) during the day….


teenage me, a bit nervous on the roof of the World Trade Center, 1975 or 1976

teenage me, a bit nervous on the roof of the World Trade Center, 1976


…and were lucky enough to dine at the Windows on the World at night. I don’t know how my Uncle scored a table there as it was the hot new restaurant in the city at the time.




Windows on the World opened in May, 1976. The restaurant was one of several opened in NYC by restaurateur Joe Baum, including The Forum of the Twelve Caesars (1957-1975), The Four Seasons (1959 and still open!), and La Fonda Del Sol (1960-early 1970s).


La Fonda Del Sol - designed by Alexander Girard with furniture by Charles and Ray Eames - photo by B22 Design's Facebook page

La Fonda Del Sol – designed by Alexander Girard with furniture by Charles and Ray Eames – photo by B22 Design’s Facebook page


menu designed by Malton Glaser, 1976 - image by Container List

menu designed by Milton Glaser, 1976 – image by Container List




Warren Platner was the interior designer of the Windows on the World, working with Baum and graphic designer Milton Glaser on the menus, china patterns, and other graphics.





elevator lobby for the restaurant at the 106th/107th floors - photo by Glen. H on flickr

elevator lobby for the restaurant at the 106th/107th floors – photo by Glen. H on flickr


reception to the Windows on the World, designed by Warren Platner - photo by

reception room for Windows on the World, designed by Warren Platner – photo by


Windows on the World, 1976 - photo by the Container List

Windows on the World, 1976 – photo by the Container List


The menu was a table d’hôte blend of American and Continental, created by the team of Baum with consultants Jacques Pepin and James Beard. There was also a more intimate Cellar in the Sky dining room with a 5-course menu and an extensive wine list, and the Hors d’Oeuvrerie, with an à la carte menu of small plates. The bars were called the City Lights Bar and the Statue of Liberty Lounge.


City Lights Bar, 1976 - photo by

City Lights Bar, 1976 – photo by what’s left on


In 1993 a bomb inside a truck was detonated by terrorists in the basement below the north tower, killing six people and injuring many. The restaurant was closed due to damage to its receiving and storage areas, but it had been in decline after a couple ownership changes. Joe Baum won the bidding for a new Windows on the World, which opened in 1996.


new Windows on the World - photo by Container List

new Windows on the World – photo by Container List


new Windows on the World

new Windows on the World – photo by KungFoohippy on imgur


Tragically, we lost Windows on the World and 79 employees of the restaurant on September 11, 2001. The new 1WTC building has a fine dining restaurant, but there is a controversial required fee of $32 just to take the elevator to the observation level that has the restaurant with the clever name ONE. (The original Windows on the World had membership dues at first, which varied by the area of Manhattan you lived in, but anyone could visit the restaurant for a one-time fee of $10 plus $3 per person. I guess in contrast, considering inflation, the $32 fee seems a bit more reasonable?)

Personally, I would rather dine at the modernist Four Seasons (which Joe Baum opened in 1959) that recently was saved from a remodel. Buy Peter Moruzzi’s book Classic Dining to see photos of The Four Seasons and then you’ll want to save your money and go!